Two independent election monitoring groups have recently received government contracts to oversee people who will be displaced by road construction projects, creating what some call a conflict of interest.
The Committee For Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia will begin monitoring the displacement of people along National Roads 5, 6 and 7 and Highway 1 later this month.
Hang Putea, director of Nicfec, and Koul Panha, director of Comfrel, both confirmed that their groups will be doing work for the government through contracts with the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
Both organizations will try to ensure that those who must move receive compensation from the government if they lose their land, businesses or homes.
“The government found that people didn’t feel comfortable complaining to the government [in prior construction projects], and they preferred to complain to NGOs,” Koul Panha said. “So the NGOs took the complaints. That’s what we’re going to do along the roads.”
The agreements mark the first time Comfrel and Nicfec have accepted contracts—and money — from the government.
“I don’t know why these groups are working as road construction monitors, because they have no experience monitoring road construction or the displacement of people,” said Chhith Samath, project coordinator for NGO Forum.
He said a conflict of interest arises when NGOs accept money from the government. “Since they are a non-government agency, they perhaps shouldn’t receive money,” Chhith Samath said.
Nicfec will receive $10,000 to monitor displacements along Highway 1, Hang Putea said. Their contract will run until June. Comfrel will get $43,500 to monitor the displacement of people along National Roads 5, 6 and 7, Koul Panha said. In addition, Comfrel will survey the impact of the construction on people who live near the area. Comfrel’s contract will expire in January 2002.
Approximately 2,500 people will be affected by the road construction along National Roads 5, 6 and 7, while about 300 families will be affected by the road construction along Highway 1.
Hang Putea said he does not believe Nicfec will be influenced by the government in any way now that they have a contract with the Finance Ministry. Hang Puthea noted Nicfec is still an independent NGO and is employing only five people in the road monitoring project.
“We won’t have a problem because we will do this work for the people,” Hang Putea said. “Just because the government pays for the work doesn’t mean it won’t help people, especially the people who are displaced.”
Koul Panha acknowledged that there is a potential for competing interests when NGOs accept money and contracts from the government. But he said Comfrel chose to work with the government because they want to expand beyond election monitoring into social and governance issues.
“It’s true that this is a conflict of interest,” he admitted. “But we are still going to try and help people who lose their land. If the government tries to pressure us with this money, then we will say ‘sorry’ and walk away. We will reject the contract.”
Comfrel plans to employ approximately 20 monitors and 23 interviewers to conduct a survey on the effects of the construction. Those employees will be completely separate from Comfrel’s election monitoring activities, Koul Panha said.
Comfrel and Nicfec are preparing to observe the upcoming commune elections, tentatively slated to take place in January 2002. Both watchdog groups will inspect the balloting for intimidation and voter fraud in the more than 1,600 communes throughout the country.
Officials from Forum Syd and the Asian Foundation, both major donors to Comfrel and Nicfec, said they were not aware the monitoring groups received government contracts.
The government hired Comfrel and Nicfec through an open bidding process, said Pan Thearong of the Finance Ministry’s Asian Development Bank division. He said only three companies bid for the projects, and the two election watchdogs were the lowest bidders. Pan Thearong declined to comment on whether hiring Comfrel and Nicfec would create a conflict of interest.
The ADB loaned the government $68 million in November 1999 for construction on National Roads 5, 6 and 7. The low-interest loan will finance 77 percent of the $88.1 million project.
The ADB also loaned $40 million to the government to upgrade 160 km of Highway 1, which links Phnom Penh with Ho Chi Minh City.
A stipulation in the ADB loans requires the government to create a displacement fund to help those who will lose their homes or businesses due to the road construction, which is where Comfrel and Nicfec come in.
Both Comfrel and Nicfec can cancel their contracts if they feel the government is attempting to pressure them in any way, Koul Panha said. He said Comfrel and Nicfec met with government officials and ADB officials twice to ensure that they could remain free from government control.
Sek Sophal, executive director of the third Cambodian election monitor, the Coalition for Fair and Free Elections (Coffel), said that as long as Comfrel and Nicfec are accepting money from the government, “people will wonder what they are doing.”
“They need money, but it is not so good to take money from the government when they are an NGO,” Sek Sophal said. “They should do free and independent work. We are NGOs—we can cooperate with the government but we cannot [have a] contract with the government.”
Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, doesn’t believe that accepting contracts from the government will essentially corrupt Comfrel or Nicfec.
“I think it depends on the contract they sign,” Lao Mong Hay said. “If their contract permits them to continue to work independently, then there is no conflict of interest.”
A US Embassy official also said this situation would not place Comfrel or Nicfec in a compromising position. “These organizations and the government don’t always have to be at odds. What they are doing is what NGOs do—monitoring,” the official said.
Koul Panha said their monitoring role will go beyond merely examining whether those displaced receive compensation by the government. Comfrel’s contract also includes the Focal Point project, in which Comfrel takes complaints by people living along the roads and tries to mediate disputes between the government and those living near the construction areas.
The third part of Comfrel’s contract directs it to conduct a survey on the impact of the road building effort along National Roads 5, 6 and 7. Since the actual upgrading of more than 577 km of roads and bridges along those roads will not be complete until 2003, Koul Panha said he would like their contract to be extended until 2003 so they can measure the full impact of the project.
Nicfec will only monitor whether those displaced by the road building along Highway 1 are compensated for their loss.
Although Comfrel and Nicfec have no prior experience in this type of monitoring, Koul Panha and Hang Putea said they will receive help and training from various NGOs in Cambodia.
But both men said they would probably not accept another government contract in the future.
“I will not work directly with the government again, but we will work bilaterally with them,” Koul Panha said. “If we work with the government, then I don’t know which organization will pressure the government to change.”
(Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann)
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